Editor’s note: Every day, from June 8 until now — when Penn State football’s Class of 2017 officially reports to campus — we’ve highlighted a different one of the Nittany Lions’ 17 incoming freshmen. Today is the final day of the 17-day series.
On June 3, 2009, lightning and tragedy struck — and Yetur Gross-Matos’ life changed forever.
The skies were clear on that summer day in Spotsylvania, Va., as the future Nittany Lion’s family watched Yetur and his older brother Chelal’s Little League game.
A storm was projected to roll through, though, so the game was delayed and Robert Matos, his wife and parents ushered players off the field at Lee Hill Park.
Yetur sat on a bench near the dugout fence, watching Chelal and a friend play catch in the outfield.
“Immediately the ground started shaking,” Yetur recalled. “People fell over onto the ground, got up and looked around. But he didn’t get up.”
Chelal was struck by lightning and died on impact. He was 12 years old.
In the days, weeks, months and years after his brother’s death, Yetur — a “guy who’s really to himself” — was at a loss. He didn’t know how to handle losing his best friend.
But as time went on, Yetur absorbed the heartbreak. He learned to cope. He took that gut-wrenching pain and channeled it.
Yetur grew while dealing with emotional agony, both as a football player and a person.
“He attributes a great part of his success to his brother watching over him,” Yetur’s father, Robert, said. “Everything that he’s doing, he’s doing it for his brother.”
Yetur was a toddler with no recollection of the first tragedy his family endured.
He was 24 months old when his biological father, Michael Gross, died in a boating accident at the age of 29. Yetur fell in the water, and Gross dove in to save him — but drowned doing so.
“I never met the man,” Yetur said, “But he gave his life trying to save me.”
Yetur’s mother, Sakinah, re-married three years after Gross’ death, bringing Robert Matos into the family.
For as long as Yetur’s ever known, Robert has been his father.
“I never treated them differently,” Robert said of Yetur and his siblings. “There was never any reference to me being a stepdad, and they’ve never been stepchildren. They’ve always been my children.”
Robert said sports helped connect him to his children, and coaching Yetur and Chelal’s Little League team was a way to do that.
Chelal, who wore No. 5, was the squad’s leadoff hitter. On the day he died, Chelal actually got on base, stole second and third, and scored the game’s lone run on a wild pitch.
The game was halted after Chelal’s daring baserunning — and minutes later, lightning struck.
“It seemed like we were hit in the head,” Robert said of earth-shaking boom. “My wife and I and my dad got knocked to the ground. That’s when we realized what had happened.”
Robert saw Chelal and his friend, Jonathan Colson, on the ground in the outfield, not getting to their feet. He bolted from behind the dugout fence and tried to perform CPR to no avail.
The two were rushed to Mary Washington Hospital. Jonathan was in critical condition and survived, while Chelal was pronounced dead.
“His clothes were all burned,” Yetur said softly. “His skin was burned. You could see his flesh.”
“Unfortunately, he didn’t make it,” Robert added.
Five days later, members of Yetur’s Little League team served as honorary pallbearers at Chelal’s funeral, and over the next few weeks, classmates, teachers and family friends came to the Gross-Matos house to pay their respects.
They brought flowers, offered condolences and asked Yetur how he was holding up.
He was at a loss for words.
“Honestly, I didn’t know what to say to anybody,” Yetur said. “From there, I went to the same school and lived in the same house. People kept showing pity and feeling bad for me. I didn’t like it. It just made me angry.”
Robert said that’s always how Yetur has handled things.
The family tried group therapy, but it didn’t help Yetur. He just didn’t want to talk about it.
“Yetur doesn’t express a lot of emotion, and he doesn’t let outsides in very easily,” his father added. “He didn’t want to share.”
Instead, Yetur kept to himself.
Yetur thought about how he and his bunk-bed mate — in a bedroom covered with Avatar and Dragonball Z posters — would play for hours. They ran around outside and used their yard as a sports complex.
They were tight as can be.
“I always looked up to him. He was everything I wanted to be,” Yetur said. “He was way more athletic than I was, funny, and he always looked out for me, more than anything.
“I felt like I was always safe when I was with him.”
Everything that he’s doing, he’s doing it for his brother.
Robert Matos, Yetur’s father
To JP Gibbons, a school counselor and offensive coordinator at Chancellor High School, three words come to mind when asked about Yetur Gross-Matos.
Adapt. Persevere. Overcome.
“He has the uncanny ability to adapt, persevere and overcome, to keep his eyes on the ground and keep moving,” Gibbons said. “You never see too high and you never see too low with Yetur. I wish when I was 19 years old I had that. He’s mature beyond his years.”
Gibbons, a friend of Robert Matos, knew Yetur when he was a kid — but became a mentor to him when he was a freshman at Chancellor.
After years of silence, Yetur came to Gibbons’ office and asked a simple question.
“Why did this have to happen?”
Gibbons didn’t have an answer.
Instead, he gave Yetur a wall to bounce his thoughts off of, a voice that reassured him everything would be OK.
“He and I just formed that ability to look at each other, and I can tell if he’s having a hard time or needs to talk,” Gibbons said. “I would never make a big deal of it. In my business as school counselor, kid’s ‘hall cred’ is huge for them. They don’t want to be seen as weak.”
And Yetur wasn’t seen that way. Not by Gibbons. Not by his father or siblings. Not in the slightest.
As a 6-foot-4 freshman, Yetur’s size and stoicism alone handled that.
On the field, the rangy teen developed into a dominating defensive end. He grew into his frame, tallying 130 tackles — yes, 130 — in his senior season.
Yetur, a four-star prospect, had 20 offers before signing with Penn State.
“I liked the stability at Penn State,” Yetur said. “I just see myself playing there.”
Gibbons knew Penn state was the right fit for Yetur — and was ecstatic his player even got to that point in the recruiting process.
He saw Yetur thrive in the face of despair and couldn’t help but be proud of how far he’d come.
“To go through what he’s gone through in such a short time on this earth — his biological father passing, his brother getting struck by lightning — it’s such a godsend when UNC-Charlotte, then Clemson, then Penn State, Duke, Alabama, all these schools started offering him,” Gibbons recalled. “And you know what? It was about time this family got some good news. Not, ‘I regret to inform you that your son was struck and killed by lightning.’”
Yetur hasn’t been back to Lee Hill Park since Chelal was struck by lightning — and that’ll likely remain the same.
The pain of losing his brother will never go away. Never.
But neither will his brother’s spirit.
Yetur is reminded of Chelal every day. On his left bicep, he has a simple tattoo — two bands, one wider than the other, representing his life and his brother’s life that was cut short.
Yetur wears No. 55 to honor Chelal, who’s favorite number was five. “One five for him,” Robert said, “another five for his brother.”
But aside from the physical, tangible reminders, Yetur will always have the memory of his brother.
He doesn’t dedicate one play or one game to Chelal. He lives his life with his brother in mind.
“He really applies to everything I do,” Yetur said. “If I ever think about giving up on something, he just motivates me.”
So even as Yetur moves 270 miles way from his Virginia home to Happy Valley, he knows Chelal will never be far away.
Overview of Yetur Gross-Matos
Hometown/high school: Spotsylvania, Va./Chancellor
Height/weight: 6-foot-5/242 pounds
Position: Defensive lineman
Recruit rankings: 4 stars (247, ESPN, Rivals, Scout)
Other scholarship offers: Alabama, California, Clemson, Duke, Kentucky, Maryland, N.C. State, North Carolina, Pitt, Syracuse, Temple, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Virginia, Virginia Tech, West Virginia
James Franklin says: “Really good student, really good family. As we keep watching this guy play, he’s a guy that I think — to be honest with you, I know this sounds ridiculous — but you say the sleeper of the class. He may be the sleeper of the class. I know he’s a four-star recruit.”